Rhino Circus

By Aaron Balakay

The hunt was only to be five days long, but had been preceded by a lifetime of dreaming, mostly the pipe variety, because it was much more likely I’d never hunt a rhinoceros than I would. Covid restrictions were in full force, and international travel had barely started to reboot. Only a few airlines were running, so I had to fly through Qatar to get to South Africa, which is sort of like flying from the U.S. to Argentina with a convenient layover in Denmark along the way.

The inefficiencies and the silly rules for the trip were annoying, but I was on a journey to fulfill a boyhood dream I never thought possible. I’d have paddled a kayak to Africa if it meant I could hunt dangerous game. The flights were only a quarter full, so I got to lay down on the four middle seats on both legs of the journey. I felt kind of bad for the people all cramped up in business class.

I arrived at the ghost town that was Johannesburg airport with my mandatory, time-stamped, negative Covid PRC test in hand that had cost me six hours of driving, a couple hundred bucks, and an extra day off of work to obtain. Nobody asked to see it. With the red tape behind me, it was finally time to hunt.

My PH, who I’ll call Bossman, picked me up sporting a khaki short sleeve button-down that could hardly contain his barrel chest. Ten minutes into our three-hour drive to the Limpopo Province, he informed me that we wouldn’t actually be rhino hunting the first day. Unfortunately, his son, who I’ll call Bossboy, had school on our scheduled first day, and he just really wanted him to be there for the hunt.

Having chosen a not-so-lucrative profession on the money side of things, a rhino hunt took a hell of a lot of work at a couple side hustles to make happen, and I would have preferred to not miss a day of hunting. And had I wanted to hunt with a kid, I would have brought one.

On day one of my once-in-a-lifetime adventure that I’d dreamt of for three decades and saved for several years to make happen, we cooled our heels at camp awaiting Bossboy’s arrival.

South Africa received some well-deserved bad press around a decade ago due to a rampant number of criminals taking advantage of the rhino hunting system in order to make big money in the illicit horn trade. The key to the scheme was proxy hunters who were either flown in from Southeast Asia, or more often than not, Thai or Vietnamese prostitutes already in South Africa. Their handlers took their passports and applied for and obtained rhino permits, and then took them hunting, often with the PH actually shooting their rhinos.

I would surmise that from time to time, the evening activities during those hunts got pretty wild.

With the hunt technically being within the letter of the law, the horn would then be legally exported as a hunting trophy to the proxy hunter’s country of origin in Southeast Asia. Upon arrival, it would be illegally sold on the black market for an outrageous sum of money. Rhino horn, by weight, is worth more than gold, heroin and cocaine. It is seen as an aphrodisiac and traditional wonder drug, and is currently even used in hospital cancer wards in Vietnam. In the seven-year period ending in 2012, at least 329 rhinos were killed by Vietnamese nationals, a country which produces very few trophy hunters. With two horns each, 658 horns ended up on the black-market, grossing an estimated $200,000,000 to $300,000,000 for the criminal enterprise. It was big business, and rhinos were caught in the middle. Demand for rhino horn will remain high, because the demand is tied to culture, and culture is one of the most difficult things to change on Earth. An animal rights group funding a couple of informative billboards in Asian city-centers informing the masses that rhino horns are the same substance as fingernails isn’t going to do anything to decrease demand.

South Africa has since changed their permitting system and hunting laws to ensure bona fide hunters are hunting rhinos. A game department representative is now required to attend all hunts, and PHs aren’t allowed to shoot rhinos for clients unless someone is about to get gored or trampled.

Vita-dart hunts have become popular with rhinos. On these so-called “green” hunts, the animal is tracked down and then shot with a dart with vitamins in it, which is immediately followed up with a veterinarian shooting a tranquilizer dart into the rhino (hunters can’t lawfully be the ones shooting the sedative). A quick photo session follows, and then the rhino wakes up and goes about his day, a little groggy, but with an extra boost of nutrients.

While I do not have a problem that this practice exists because it serves a purpose in conservation, I knew it wasn’t for me. When I was seven years old stalking the woods and shooting birds with my BB gun, I often made believe I was in Africa and the birds were various pachyderms, but never in my wildest fantasies did I imagine myself shooting them with a nutritious vitamin supplement dart.

Apparently, my 40-page application convinced the powers that be in South Africa that I just wanted an adventure, and wasn’t planning on selling the horn to a wealthy Asian gentleman who believed it would cure his cancer or take his erections to the next level.

While there is definitely a case to be made that the hunting imperative is stronger for rhinos than perhaps any other species on Earth, I was not inspired to hunt rhinos for conservation. I could have just sent a check. If CITES continues to deny those with rhinos the ability to legally trade in horns internationally, rhinos need dollars from hunters to continue to exist. Conservation is a by-product of my hunting lifestyle, and I’m proud of that, but it would be disingenuous to say I was there solely for conservation.

I was there because hunting dangerous game in Africa is one of the last great adventures left on this planet.

Bossboy showed up that evening, a five-foot tall, five-foot wide man-child who wasn’t quite a teenager but was well on his way to a promising career in Sumo wrestling if he didn’t follow in his father’s professional footprints. He was also annoying, and I didn’t like him.

I found out that when a rhino is hunted, it is a rare enough event that everyone wants to be a part of it. I was trying to be a good client and just go with the flow. I didn’t say anything when we took off on the tracks of a pair of rhino bulls the second morning and our hunting party included Bossman’s tracker, a tracker under employ by the property owner, Bossman, Bossboy, myself, an apprentice PH observer, an apprentice PH videographer, and a government mandated game scout. I was starting to wonder if what Bossman had told me about rhino hunting being challenging was all bullshit.

After a few hundred yards of tracking, I had already made an appraisal of the crew. The trackers, as always, were solid. They had keen eyes and walked in near-complete silence. Bossman lumbered through the bush with all the woodsmanship of an excavator with its bucket down, and Bossboy was about as subtle as a herd of elephants on a stampede. His noise wasn’t the biggest issue, however. Bossman had assigned Junior to be his gun-bearer, so he was toting around a loaded and chambered .458 Lott. I had to remind him the importance of muzzle control twice in the first few hundred yards of tracking.

The apprentices were at different skill levels, but weren’t a problem, other than there were two of them and our party was already too big. The one was busy trying to get video and be quiet at the same time, which can be difficult. The other, I could tell, was going to be a good PH in the future, quiet and alert, reading the movement and mannerisms of the trackers to guide him in how to proceed on the trail. Our game scout, clad in her khaki uniform with an embroidery from the game department was at the tail end of the procession and tromped along with a jovial smile, happy to have some work to do in the field after a long Covid shutdown. Collectively, the eight of us probably looked like circus performers making our way to the front stage for the final act.

The tracking was easy in some places, and difficult in others, but the trackers kept us going at a steady pace. In a couple hours, I saw the trackers in front of me tense up and freeze, as did Bossman. I stopped. Ahead of us, just over the rise, I saw the shoulder humps of a pair of bedded Southern White Rhinoceros bulls in the shade of a tree less than 20 yards away. For a split second, I thought it was perfect, and that somehow, we had lucked out with the little undulation in the terrain that had masked our presence.

Unfortunately, Bossboy must have been looking at his feet and daydreaming about Snickers bars and hadn’t gotten the memo to stop. The four guys ahead of him, including myself, were frozen. He slammed into me like a drunken linebacker. I slammed into Bossman, who then slammed into the trackers. We fell down like a row of dominoes like something straight out of an old slapstick comedy. A circus indeed.

The rhinos rose from their beds and turned to run in a split second, their speed and agility completely incongruous with their size and build. They left a small cloud of dust that was whisked towards us as the bass of thundering hooves receded in the distance. I got up, not super happy about the situation, and then found myself looking down a metal hole exactly .458 inches in diameter as Bossboy tried to gain his feet with all the grace and economy of motion of a tortoise flipped on its back, the rifle flailing around the entire time. I ducked and dodged the muzzle until he stood up, completely unaware that had his rifle gone off, it would have sent 500 grains of lead through my skull.

I told our esteemed gun-bearer that the most dangerous part of the hunt should be the 5,000 pound pachyderms at close quarters, not getting shot in the head by a 12-year-old.

“But the safety is on,” he said.

I wasn’t sure what constituted child abuse in South Africa’s laws, but I figured slamming the butt of my rifle against his jaw would have been a crime, as appealing as the option seemed. I was also certain that Bossman’s big Boer ass could kick the shit out of my skinny American ass, so I just snatched the rifle out of his chubby hands, thrusted it at Bossman’s abdomen and told him to carry his own rifle.

That evening, sipping drinks around the campfire, I told Bossman that I didn’t think we were going to be very effective with so many people in the hunting party. It seemed this thought hadn’t occurred to him.

“Ah, good point, mate. Maybe we should leave someone at the bakkie,” he said.

“I was thinking you, me, a tracker and the game scout, and the rest hang out at the truck.” He nodded back, considering.

The next morning, when we crossed the next set of tracks, Bossboy hopped off the truck and tried to join the four of us. I gave him a dirty look followed by an ear-to-ear smart-assed grin that Bossman couldn’t see and then pointed at the truck. He looked at me like I’d stolen his last box of Twinkies. I resisted the urge to flip him the bird. Then he turned around and waddled back to the truck, pouting the whole way.

We tracked a few hours before closing on the bull, but we discovered that it was not one of the ones we were after. Bossman had two particular bulls in mind he knew about that he was hoping I could get among the dozen or so around. Unfortunately, the rhinos’ feet all looked the same so we pursued any fresh tracks of mature bulls we found.

While Bossman struggled with walking through the bush quietly, personal hygiene and general social ineptitude, he had been right about the challenge part. The rhinos proved to be alert and spooky, and the challenge was magnified by the thick, green bush due to it being March in the Southern Hemisphere. At times, it felt like we were hunting 5,000-pound whitetails.

Just before dark, we caught a bull in the open after half a day of tracking. He wasn’t one of the two we were after. At this point, I had a serious case of the fuck-its and was simply ready for the hunt to end before Junior shot me or I shot him. The bull looked pretty good to me, so I raised my rifle, clicked off the safety and was about to send a solid through his lungs.

“We can do better,” Bossman said. “There are two bulls with better horns, and I think we can find one.”

I looked at him. I considered the spectrum of hunting guides I’d had over the years, what I learned from them, and how much I’d come to trust their judgment. Most were good, some had been extraordinary. Bossman, despite a few flaws, wasn’t exactly the bottom of the list, either.

“Alright,” I told him. I lowered the rifle.

He was, after all, the professional, and he knew a lot more about this than I did.

The next day, we found a set of tracks which led to one of the bulls, the better of the two, a bull with a distinct, forward pointing horn that I was glad I’d waited for. After bumping him once at less than 20 yards without getting a shot, we caught up with him again three hours later. He was in the thick stuff, close, the way it should be, and the proximity to the rhinoceros was intoxicating. He stood, obscured by the green foliage, unaware of our presence, like a dinosaur that had somehow escaped whatever had killed the rest.

I thought of my seven-year-old self, roaming the woods with a BB gun clad in old woodland camo. I was bigger now, with a bigger rifle, but the dream was still the same. Africa’s big and dangerous stuff. I’d doubted it, but never discarded it. It had been dormant at times, but never dead.

I held at the crease of his shoulder and my .375 spoke.

From the FE Films Archive

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